Good News for Teenagers: How Naomi Osaka Is Modeling Healthy Self- Care

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What happened: Last month, 23-year old Naomi Osaka, the number two women’s tennis player in the world, stunned sports fans with her decision to withdraw from the French Open.

Earlier in the week, Osaka had announced that she would not be taking part in mandatory press conferences, citing the stress that grueling press events added to an intense week of competition. When tournament officials charged her with a $15,000 fine and threatened to expel her from play, Osaka withdrew from competition altogether. She responded on Twitter:

Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety… So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self‑care and skip the press conferences.

Acknowledging that she has suffered from “long bouts of depression” since 2018, Osaka chose to prioritize her mental health over competition, even as she realized that some officials in the tennis world would lambaste her choice.

Why it matters and how to talk about it: When we talk with teens about breaking news, we want to be careful not to turn the difficulties of real people into fables or object lessons. Osaka’s struggle is personal and undoubtedly much more complex than anyone outside her closest circle knows. But we can admire her courage from afar, as we pray that she already knows or comes to discover companionship Jesus offers in our darkest moments.

Osaka’s honesty and wisdom set a remarkable example for teenagers. Admitting to the Twitterverse that she felt vulnerable and anxious was a bold move. Even braver was her willingness to take time away from her job (which is tennis for her) to actually face her depression and anxiety. Defying the cultural norm to stay in hot pursuit of success, Osaka refused to medicate her pain with hard work anymore.

Jesus helps us face painful feelings because avoiding them makes things worse: Our teenagers have so many ways to avoid feeling scary bad feelings, to block out the terrifying knowledge that they are no match for depression, anxiety, or their all-around not-enough-ness. The Novocain of social media, the hamster wheel of achievement, the lure of sex, drugs, and rock n’roll –  all promise to banish pain, and none can deliver.

It is helpful for teenagers to know Jesus experienced scary bad feelings too. He was perpetually misunderstood by his friends and family. He grieved the death of his cousin John and friend Lazarus. He knew poverty and hunger and hard work. Sometimes He was the most popular guy in Galilee and sometimes He looked like a total loser.

Jesus’ whole ministry was framed by the temptation to avoid pain and suffering. In the desert, Satan urged him to take the easy way out (Matthew 4:1-11). In Gethsemane, Jesus begged God not to lead Him to the Cross. At any moment He could have called the powers of heaven to free Him, and He would have been perfectly within His rights to do so (Matthew 26:53).

Instead, He faced the pain of the Cross, of separation from His Father, so that you and I and the teenagers we love would never have to.

That is how the Psalmist can say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). We want our teenagers to know that even though their dark valleys look and feel like “death,” we have a Savior who knows those feelings. The darkest shadow cannot separate us from the Savior who walks us through, back into His light.

While it’s sad to watch Osaka suffer, I am filled with hope for her. Admitting that tennis, work, winning, success, fame, and money (she has it all!) cannot heal or satisfy her is the first brave step towards finding the One who can heal and satisfy her. Christ can restore her joy in tennis or lead her to something new. In Him, we cannot lose.

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